A Love Affair with Jack NicholsBy Rodger Streitmatter
My love affair with Jack Nichols began 15 years ago.
I was a recently tenured journalism professor who’d decided to write a history of the gay and lesbian press—a project no one had ever tackled before.
The earliest stages of my research led me to copies of a little publication consisting of a few pages of 8½-by-11-inch paper that had been folded in half and stapled at the crease. This curious little item had been produced in Washington, D.C., in the mid-1960s and carried the quainter-than-quaint title The Homosexual Citizen. In fact, it hardly seemed like a publication at all, reminding me of something I’d put together back in elementary school. But when I began reading the articles, I came upon this passage—
“When homosexuals stand up in a positive fashion for their rights, when they take their destiny into their own hands to make a world for themselves and for their fellows that is free of fear, confusion, and discrimination, they are casting aside their own fear and confronting the forces of darkness and despair with a healthy vigor. They cannot help but benefit from their assertion of human freedom and dignity.”
Holy horndog!Reading that statement wiped all thoughts of quaintness from my mind, as I was struck not only by how the sentiments it expressed were perfectly applicable to the modern-day LGBT community but I also marveled at the power and eloquence of the writing style. When I looked at the byline, I found the author’s name to be Warren D. Adkins.
I had to find this guy.
The specific steps I took next are hazy in my mind after all these years, as is exactly how I’d come to hold that first copy of The Homosexual Citizen in my hands. I’m guessing I relied on the skills I’d gained in my previous life as a newspaper reporter. I vaguely remember contacting a former student who worked for the Washington Blade, asking her who she thought might know about the early LGBT press in D.C. and then talking to whoever she’d suggested. But the step I took that remains crystal clear in my mind, even though a decade and a half have passed since then, is phoning somebody in Cocoa Beach, Florida, that one of the folks in D.C. had told me was the guy who’d written under the pseudonym Warren D. Adkins. By the end of that first call, my affair had begun.
Jack Nichols answered every question I came up with about The Homosexual Citizen as well as the other publications that gay and lesbian activists in other cities had produced during the 1960s. What’s more, he did so with a sense of good cheer and lack of cynicism that’s rare to find. On top of all that, Jack was amazingly quotable. When I asked him if it had been hard, back in the day, to be one of the first people to speak openly with the media about being gay, he said—
“You felt lucky if you appeared on a TV program and left the studio with your genitals intact.”
How could I not fall in love with this guy?
One of the points I remember feeling most appreciative about was how he helped me understand why he and the other folks had titled their publication The Homosexual Citizen. A lot of people in the mid-1960s still thought being gay was comparable to being a communist, he told me, so he and the other people who’d founded that first-ever D.C. gay and lesbian publication crafted the name to make the point that they were patriotic and law-abiding citizens who were proud to be Americans.
Points like that made complete sense when Jack explained them. In fact, hearing his explanation and learning about the forces that Jack and the other early activists had to struggle against made me feel embarrassed that I’d ever thought the title they’d come up with was quaint.
After several lengthy phone conversations with Jack, I managed to write a draft chapter about that first generation of this country’s LGBT press.
Our affair didn’t end there, though, because I soon learned that Jack’s journalistic career hadn’t been confined to D.C. in the mid-1960s but had continued in New York City at the end of that decade and into the 1970s—though, by that point, Warren D. Adkins had ceased to exist as pseudonyms were no longer used in the LGBT press.
The main venue for Jack’s writing during this next stage was a paper titled Gay. Again, my memory fails me when I try to remember exactly how I got my hands on copies of that wild-and-wooly paper, but I definitely did. I felt compelled to, seeing as how it was founded by Jack and his lover Lige Clarke—Lige was a shortened version of Elijah—and was the first weekly gay paper in the country.
During one phone conversation, Jack told me—“If you were gay and living anywhere in the country, the highlight of your week was reading a copy of Gay.”
“If you were gay and living anywhere in the country, the highlight of your week was reading a copy of Gay.”
I love that quote because it does a great job of capturing one of Jack’s most endearing qualities: He had an ego the size of Montana!
Not that he didn’t have a right to be proud of the paper. More than any publication of its era, Gay reflected the huge role that sex and fantasy played in the gay male culture of the late 1960s and 1970s.
Indeed, when I finished my history of the LGBT press and was looking for a single image to highlight as the first photo in the book, I turned to one that Jack had placed prominently in Gay.
The story the photo accompanied was one reporting that police had raided a Greenwich Village bookstore that sold homoerotic magazines. The article was only three inches long, but the photo measured five inches by twelve inches and showcased a handsome young man named Rick Nielsen—identified as an employee of the bookstore—posing for the camera. The photo was a full-frontal nude shot of the bare-chested and impressively endowed Nielsen wearing nothing but a seductive smile. When I asked Jack about the photo, he laughed heartily and said he’d taken the photo himself—“I love writing, but back then I may have loved being a photographer even more!”
“I love writing, but back then I may have loved being a photographer even more!”
Thanks to any number of phone calls to Jack plus a trip my partner and I took to Cocoa Beach so I could interview him in person, I worked my way through the chapter about the 1970s LGBT press.
Even after finishing the initial chapters, I kept phoning Jack whenever I had questions about later stages of the evolution of the LGBT press that he wasn’t directly involved in. This reality speaks to another of his endearing qualities: Jack was willing to share his thoughts on any topic someone asked him about—he was bursting with opinions!
It took me another couple years and plenty more calls to Jack, but I eventually completed the manuscript that was published in 1995 and titled Unspeakable: The Rise of the Gay and Lesbian Press in America.
When it came time for me to write a dedication for the book, I crafted this statement— “I dedicate this book to the courageous women and men who founded a lesbian and gay press long before it was fashionable or financially profitable to do so.”
“I dedicate this book to the courageous women and men who founded a lesbian and gay press long before it was fashionable or financially profitable to do so.”
In fact, the man I had in mind when I wrote that sentence was the guy I’ve had a love affair with for the past 15 years, Jack Nichols.
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